2014/15 Season

I’m getting worse and worse at actually writing stuff promptly. So my end of year wrap up comes after several of the 2015/16 shows have already started. Oh well, better late than never. I’m only talking about US shows here, I think I’m going to move the UK series so that I look at them at the end of the year. Frankly that’s pretty arbitrary but I watch so little UK television that adding it to the list just looked embarrassing. Also I’m focussing more on the returning shows as all the new things got their own little article last week.

Things I’ve watched

The Affair: S1
American Horror Story: Freak Show (S4)
The Americans: S3 (in progress)
Aquarius (in progress)
The Blacklist: S2 (half)
Criminal Minds: S10 (failed to review)
CSI: S15
Defiance: S3 (in progress)
Downton Abbey: S5
Forever: S1 (half)
Game of Thrones: S5 (half)
The Good Wife: S6
Grey’s Anatomy: S11
Jane the Virgin: S1 (review pending)
Justified: S6
Mad Men: S7 Part 2
Madam Secretary: S1 (half)
Marvel’s Agent Carter: S1
Marvel’s Agents of Shield: S2
NCIS: Los Angeles: S6 (failed to review)
The Newsroom: S3
Orange is the New Black: S3 (review pending)
Orphan Black: S3 (just starting)
Penny Dreadful: S2
Perception: S3 (failed to review)
Scandal: S4
Stalker: S1 (failed to review)
Transparent: S1
The Walking Dead: S5

So that’s 27 series, although four of them I only watched part of the season before giving up and four are still in progress. I think that’s probably about 340 episodes? It felt like I watched less television this year, but actually it’s up on last year’s count of 20 series. I think though that a lot of what I watched was just less memorable so it doesn’t feel like I’ve watched as much. 20 episodes each of Criminal Minds, NCIS LA, CSI and Scandal all add up pretty quickly, yet take up remarkably little space in my brain.

I watched six new shows to completion this year, an additional two I made it half way through and actually Orange is the New Black and Justified were both new series for me too which I binge watched from the start and then caught up to the current season. So 10 shows that appear on this year’s list but weren’t on last year’s. In the other direction there were 9 series that I watched last year which didn’t return. Five I chose not to pick up again: Castle (I just got bored with it), The Big Bang Theory (I just missed the start and never felt like catching up), The Following (just too ridiculous), Extant (I don’t think I even got through the whole first season) and The Lost Ship (couldn’t be bothered) . Two I haven’t got round to yet: House of Cards: S3 (it’s in my new Netflix queue) and The Night Shift: S2 (still no UK distributer). Almost Human was cancelled and Fargo didn’t broadcast any new episodes.

The more I think about the list of shows I’ve watched, the more underwhelmed I am with the year. Did I miss something? Have I watched so much TV that I’ve over-dosed and its lost its appeal? I just don’t think anything this year was outstanding. Even the shows that I list below for plaudits are mostly ongoing series that have just continued doing what they do, well. Where were the paradigm shifts? The big evolutions? The watercooler moments? It just feels like a very flat year.

Best Shows
Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardOrange is the New Black was a show that I’d wanted to watch from the get-go, but couldn’t justify the Netflix cost for. I finally caught up on the first season on dvd and then binged the second and third over a week or so when I finally gave in and signed up to Netflix. The lightness of the humour and the positivity of the relationships is starkly contrasted with the bleakness of the characters’ situations. The acting and writing is wonderful, the slow reveals of characters’ pasts through flashbacks is particularly clever and the whole thing is fresh, original and utterly compelling.

Justified_2010_IntertitleJustified was a great discovery for me, which I should thank Sky Boxsets for. I caught up with the first five seasons in just a few weeks and then got to watch the final season as it broadcast. I loved the whole series, but was particularly impressed that rather than fade away, the final season was actually one of the best. It focussed back on the main trio of characters and played out the uncertainty of “good”, “bad” and “somewehre in between” to the very end. A masterclass in how to close out a series.

americansThe Americans has been slow to reach the UK so I’m only about half way through, but it continues to be absolutely fascinating. The focus is alwasys on the emotional impact of the secrets and lies all the characters have to tell, which is good for me because I often struggle to remember the details of the various conspiracies and am far more interested in watching the phenomenal Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell acting. I feel a bit of a cheat putting something on here that’s only half way through, but it seems unlikely it will take a nosedive now!

Honourable mention: Defiance got off to a surprisingly brutal but very interesting start. There’s so little science fiction on television outside the super-hero genre that it’s a huge relief that this one doesn’t suck.

Favourite Shows
greys anatomyGrey’s Anatomy – only 4 of the original cast are left by the end of season 11. Each time someone leaves I think the show will struggle without them, that their gap will be unfillable, but each time the characters and relationships mature and evolve, not to replace the missing person, but to grow around the gap and evolve the show into something new. I love how the characters have grown, how the relationships mature and how nothing in the past is forgotten, but all makes a part of the present. Yes, it’s a daft soap opera with unbelievable stuff happening, but if you accept that key premise, everything else makes perfect sense. It’s like a comfortable blanket at the end of the day.

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoMarvel’s Agent Carter – while Agents of SHIELD did improve this year it’s still got a lot of problems and the pressure of being a headline show for both ABC and Marvel isn’t helping it. Agent Carter however didn’t have any of the pressure or any of the problems and quietly came along with a phenomenal central cahracter and hugely entertaining story.

Honourable mention: Jane the Virgin was a breath of fresh, if extremely cheesy, air.

Same old, same old (in a mostly good way)
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead – The relentless pace of The Walking Dead never stops (ironic, given the increasingly shambling nature of the zombies). In the space of twenty odd episodes an incredible amount happened and it’s only through the efficiency of the writing and the talent of the actors that all the characters manage to develop and every nuance is clear. I do wish that we could catch our breath a little, and that the characters could actually find some brief respite and happiness, but I guess that wouldn’t be The Walking Dead.

pennydreadfulPenny Dreadful continues to be an under-watched and under-appreciated gem. The period detail is stunning and the interweaving of various literary characters is fascinating. It’s definitely a show that benefits from watching in chunks though as it is quite easy to lose track of the many different threads.

Mostly honourable mention: Orphan Black has got off to a strong start to season 3 (I’m about 3 episodes in) but its storyline is becoming more convoluted and I hope it’s not going to get lost.

Same old, same old (in a middling way)
CriminalMindsCriminal Minds – I didn’t even bother to review Criminal Minds this year because I honestly have nothing to say and very little recollection of what happened. I mean, I guess it’s safe and familiar (as much as that’s weird to say about a graphically brutal series about serial killers) and it’s not that I want it to be cancelled or dramatically changed, but 10 seasons later it needs some energy.

csiCSI – the final season trundled along much as the last half dozen or so had gone. Unremarkable stories, increasingly losing touch with the actual science and credibility that the show was founded on. Mind you (spoiler alert) having just yesterday watched the final feature length episode, the last season comparatively the creative highpoint of the show.

Middlingly honourable mention: NCIS: Los Angeles continues to have fun with its characters but struggle when it comes to memorable and engaging plots.

Same old, same old (in a bad way)
scandalScandal – oh good lord. It just keeps getting stupider and stupider. The core relationships are all stunningly unhealthy and I endlessly wonder why any of them (friends, colleagues or lovers) stay together when they’re clearly all phenomenally bad for each other and in fact the rest of humanity. I think I might be done.

Game of ThronesGame of Thrones – I’ve finally given up. There’s way too many characters that I really don’t care about, too many drawn out plots that aren’t going anywhere and a complete absence of any real fantasy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Dishonourable mention: not even James Spader was enough to make me stick with The Blacklist as its convoluted mess of a story left me completely confused and utterly uninterested in who was trustworthy or not.

What happened there?! (in a very bad way)
goodwifeThe Good Wife – I hate seeing The Good Wife down in this section, but the more I think about it, the more frustrated I was by this season. I’d been really looking forward to seeing what would happen with Cary and Alicia’s firm, particularly with Diane joining them… and I was cheated out of it by a ‘too fast’ change of direction that saw Alicia running for State’s Attorney. The ongoing ridiculous arguments with the old firm was just pantomime and Cary’s legal problems were just contrived and frustrating. There’s still a lot of good about the show, but all the major storylines were miss-steps.


Defiance: Season 2

I seem to swing back and forth on Defiance a bit, I loved the pilot but was then a bit under-whelmed by the rest of the first season, now I’m swinging back for a cheery review of the second season.

defianceAs I acknowledged previously, some of my positivity about the series may be a slight desperation for some actual science fiction on television. While superheroes and even fantasy are pretty ubiquitous on television these days, space ships are still a pretty rare sight. Space ships accompanied by good writing are even more uncommon (I’m looking at you Extant), so when a new season of a Rockne S. O’Bannon series hits the schedules I breathe a sigh of relief.

What O’Bannon manages to do is create fantastically rich universes and populate them with believable characters, putting makeup and weird languages on talented character actors and giving them dialogue that’s both utterly normal and completely alien.

The storylines cover pretty much everything from giant world-destroying spaceships and alien possession through to grief, jealousy and what people will do for love. As previously, I could do without some of the “wibbly spiritual stuff”, but at least you can sort of ignore it if you want and just watch the practical outcomes of it. Or just laugh at the dialogue and care about the characters. It works on that level just as well.

Defiance is a show that’s great entertainment to watch but also stands up pretty well to more intense study and discussion. Personally I’m more about the entertainment, but it’s very nice to have the choice.

Defiance: Season 1

defianceI was so excited at finally having a ‘proper’ science fiction show with spaceships and aliens back on the air that I was maybe a little gushy in my pilot review. The rest of the series didn’t quite live up to my rose-tinted view of the pilot, but it did manage to hang on to most of the sense of fun and production quality.

My biggest disappointment with the show is something of a personal bugbear; I don’t like it when science fiction shows lose track of the science bit of that and head off into wibbly-wobbly mysticism. There is a muttering about nano-tech to explain the visions and powers and what-not, but that’s a bit of a cheat in my book. I like my science fiction to be explainable and not drift too far off into magical powers, destinies and chosen ones.

As the series went on it seemed to become less about aliens and spaceships and more about politics and secrets. It’s hard for me to explain where this lost me, I know and love that science fiction is generally just about using different situations to explore familiar issues, but this all became a little too mundane. The ‘alieness’ became confined to interior décor, colourful make-up, swear words that get past the censors and a couple of exaggerated character traits. With the exception of the mystical wibblies, most of the stories and characters could have come straight out of Deadwood.

I’m probably being rather harsh, but then it balances with my rather rose-tinted pilot review. I did enjoy the stories and the characters, they’re all doing solid jobs and there are a couple of stand-out performances – Jaime Murray (Warehouse 13, Hustle) plays the multi-layered Stahma beautifully and most of my frustration with the mystical storylines stemmed from the fact that Stephanie Leonidas was so much more fun playing the knife-happy Irisa rather than the angsty girl with a destiny.

The design is also a lot of fun, the way the alien races have all contributed and merged into the human world, everything overlapping, the next generation integrating more than their parents might like… it’s impressively done and interesting to watch. Even the music is wonderfully alien feeling. It means that even though it’s all made of of very familiar components it combines into something fresh and new. The only exception being the rather one-dimensional Earth Republic, who seem to have wandered straight out of Firefly to be “evil gus in suits”.

It’s a solid show and very entertaining to watch. But it’s more an a level with syfy’s other ‘fun’ shows like Warehouse 13 and Eureka. That just seems a bit of a shame, because with a bit of extra effort it could have been more; but it lacks the originality and chaos of Farscape or the depth and power of Battlestar Galactica. I’ll certainly be happily tuning in for season 2 next year, maybe by then I’ll have got over my disappointment and be able to more fully embrace the show for what it is, rather than what it’s not.

Defiance: Pilot Review

I actually let out a little cheer when the very first shot of Defiance featured a space ship looming in to view. It’s been a long time since we last saw one of those on television. There are no end of series that could make some sort of claim to being science fiction – zombies, monsters, vampires and the varyingly weird and wacky appearing frequently, but spaceships have been few and far between. Syfy channel has finally however put its money where its ambiguously spelled name is and delivers a spaceship.

That said, the ships don’t stay in space very long and we soon move into an entirely earth bound series, but what Defiance lacks in altitude it certainly make up for in sheer numbers of aliens with 9 races apparently cohabiting a terraformed Earth. (Can you terraform Earth? Isn’t terraforming by definition making things more earth like?) So we find ourselves in the town of Defiance, clinging to existence with nervous relations between races and limited resources, it’s sort of Babylon 5 set in frontier land.

In fact you’ll find yourself saying “that’s sort of…” an awful lot during the pilot. The whole thing is a hodge-podge of science fiction staples all thrown together to make a dusty new whole. Fans of the genre will be able to rattle off the tropes that the series is using to build its characters, concepts and plots, but for the most part the originality of the combinations keeps things from being boring. If you watched Farscape you’ll know exactly the type of chaotic yet coherent world that Rockne S. O’Bannon (also of Alien Nation and Seaquest DSV) is capable of creating, and the incredible amount of fun that world is to visit. His writing experience also shines through in the elegant way the world is explained – there’s a minimum of exposition, yet somehow within minutes you just ‘get’ everything. There is plenty of detail hidden away, but if you don’t want to, or can’t be bothered, to pay attention to it, the meat and potatoes of the plot still makes perfect sense.

The cast is excellent, mostly people that I hadn’t seen before but playing fairly familiar characters, most notably Grant Bowler as the leading man who I’d never seen before but was instantly likeable, falling into the Han Solo, John Crichton, Malcolm Reynolds-esque loveable rogue. Julie Benz is more familiar to genre fans (most notably as Darla from Buffy), competent but lacking confidence in her new position of mayor. The two characters play off each other well, each challenging and irritating the other, but also bringing out each other’s strengths. There are plenty of other good performances and characters underneath varying amounts of latex too, and loads of opportunities for interesting relationships to build up.

The effects are a little ropey in places, but the important stuff is all there. The makeup is a fairly standard mix of bumpy noses, tinted skin and weird wigs, but quickly all blends in leaving you to appreciate the characters beyond the hairstyles. The technology that there is to play with also seems fun, again a familiar mix of weapons, shields and funky computer interfaces, but contrasting nicely with the overall shortage of resources leaving people short of food and paper, but with easy access to energy weapons. It makes for a fun mix of dusty frontier town and shiny toy shop.

I was so wanting to like this show, and I was nervous that it would screw up and doom space ships to the television black list for another 5 years, but they pulled it off. I think science fiction fans will like it, certainly myself and my two even harder to please housemates all loved it, but I think even non-fans will find a lot to like in it if they give it a chance. The only miss-step the pilot made was a little too much reliance on the Romeo and Juliet storyline, but the rest of the references were all lightly enough done that they all combined into a fresh new whole that never lost sight of the most important factor – fun. The large price tag for the series and tie-in MMO game (which I have no intention of going anywhere near) mean that it’s gonna need all the support it can get to live beyond the 13 episode first season. But I think there’s more than enough there to tell some interesting and really entertaining stories.

Defiance is on SyFy channel on Tuesday evenings, repeated frequently through the week.

Other reviews:
TV Fanatic – Overall, I’m very pleased with the pilot; the show has done a good job of telling an engaging story IN the future without it being entirely about the future.

Den of Geek – When compared to the opening episodes of such sci-fi or fantasy shows as Battlestar or Game Of Thrones, Defiance isn’t what you’d call knock-out television. But there’s something about its quirky cast of characters and its sense of fun that is entirely endearing.